The Sparks Brothers

So, I’ve seen the new Edgar Wright film, have you? No, I’m not talking “Last Night in Soho”, that comes out in October and it looks to be scary fun. This film is a documentary about the eccentric band “Sparks” and the two brothers that are the heart and soul of musical integrity. Someone once said that rock and roll and comedy don’t really mix well, but that person had never heard Sparks, or maybe that’s why they never heard them because their offbeat sense of humor keeps the pop market from fully embracing their music. 

This was a father’s Day activity for me. My daughter, who barely had any inkling of this band, found the subject  delightful and fascinating. I was slightly better off than her in approaching this, I knew of Sparks during their second phase, and I enjoyed their music, owned a couple of albums and even went to see them once live at the same amusement park that they filmed a movie appearance in. I was a casual fan, who lost track of them, and now I wish I was the kind of person who had all of their albums and had been following them for fifty years. 

Well there is an abundance of Talking Heads in the documentary [the interview style not the band], there are also performance clips, news footage, chat show appearances, and intriguing music videos to bring us all up to speed. Ron and Russell Mael are not British, though many might think so since much of their breakthrough work was first successful in the United Kingdom. They are in fact Southern California boys who unfortunately went to UCLA, but do not seem to have been permanently harmed by that experience. The older brother Ron, is the Principle songwriter and keyboardist for the band and his younger brother is the lead singer/frontman of the band. They have had various other musicians, in and out of the band over a fifty year time span, and many of them appear in this film as do a legion of their admirers. 

In movies, there are several uses of “Sparks” music. One of my late wife’s favorite films was the 1983 film “Valley Girl” and there were two Sparks songs on that soundtrack, “Eaten By The Monster of Love” and “Angst in My Pants“. My favorite film of 2010 was “Kick Ass” and it features a moment with their first big hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us“. In the documentary, there is a discussion of the era of KROQ radio station in Los Angeles and how influential it was in getting New Wave acts played on the air, Sparks, while not a New Wave band per se did get covered on that station. In the years 1980 to 1983, my radio was always on that station number and that’s how I heard about Sparks appearance at Magic Mountain for a Halloween show. The band made a brief musical moment in the movie “Rollercoaster”  in 1977 at the same park, but in the Halloween show, they played the same stage where the Puppet show headlined and “Spinal Tap” got second billing. It’s also the stage featured in “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park”, and coincidentally, my Father played that stage in 1971 right after the park had opened, I worked with him for two weeks at the holiday period. 

The band is prolific and continues to be eccentric. This film was two hours and fifteen minutes, and we saw it at an Alamo Drafthouse with a thirty minute lead in hosted by director Edgar Wright, so the whole experience was even longer. It still felt short, especially in comparison to “In the Heights” which we had jus seen a couple of days earlier. If you are a fan of the band and their music, you really should get out to a theater to see this. If you are not a fan, you should go see it and become one. 

In the Heights

The Tony Award Winning Best Musical, from the creator of “Hamilton”, is finally a movie after several starts and stops in the production process. It was due out last year and the pandemic delayed it like a lot of other films. That might be doubly unfortunate because sometimes timing can make a difference in a movies fortunes and I think this one may have missed the mark. The world is an angrier place than it was a year ago, and the generally upbeat tone of this film seems at odds with the cultural climate of the diversity issues that are being discussed now. Rioting and looting to musical numbers is just not the same. 

I will admit upfront that this movie and the play were probably not made for me. Hip Hop music can be invigorating but the frequent absence of melody and the near conversational lyrics, don’t pull me in the same way a traditional Broadway showtune does. It feels to me like there is no hook, and the chorus in most of the songs is not memorable enough to be catchy either. That doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it far different from what I expect in a musical and that diminished my enthusiasm for this film. 

Another problem I had with the movie is the overproduction in every musical sequence. That sounds like an oxymoron but the film feels like it is trying to top the last sequence every time a new moment occurs.  So it is often a bigger crowd, a more elaborate environment, wilder dance moves and bigger emotional bullet points. It gets exhausting. One of my on-line friends quoted a critic who suggested it was like watching a film length Coke commercial. Everything is gracefully shot, swiftly choreographed, but ultimately a bit shallow. The colors and the lighting pop, but not in a stylized way, just in the cheerful way you might try to sell soda with.  Director Jon Chu has a talented eye but could use a little restraint at times. The film feels like the writer and the director want every song moment to be a show stopper, and that puts the characters in the background of their own story. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda is certainly a talent that can create something compelling. He managed to make the founding fathers hip, and bring attention to American History in a contemporary way.  His love story here is a bit problematic., in part because it is so overstuffed. Usnavi loves Vanessa, Benny loves Nina, and Usnavi and Benny both love their neighborhood and want everyone else to do the same. If the story stuck to those characters it might work better, but we have a story about Usnavi’s adopted Grandmother Figure, his cousin, Nina’s Father, Vanessa’s dream, the women at the hair salon, the closing of the car service, the dream of opening a beachfront bar, the kids in the neighborhood, Usnavi’s role as story teller, it just gets exhausting, and it does so over a period of two and a half hours. I don’t want to sound like Emperor Joseph II from “Amadeus”, but “there are just too many notes.”   

The movie is well made and performed. Anthony Ramos as the lead is fine, he appears to be experienced with Lin-Manuel Miranda having performed in “Hamilton”, although I first noticed him as the more sympathetic of the two crooked FBI guys in Honest Thief” last year. Except for Jimmy Smits, everyone else in the show was new to me, but they all seem talented, but don’t get as much opportunity to shine as is necessary to make the characters engaging. I liked the movie but not enough.